Why you’d want a Riley Elf or Wolseley Hornet
Brand loyalty was a significant factor in the 1950s car market – but mass production was essential to keep costs down.
Struggling to hold on to faithful customers of its once-proud independent brands, the unwieldy British Motor Corporation resorted to ‘badge engineering’ its volume models as multiple car ownership per household increased, hoping to attract wives, sons and daughters to buy a Riley or Wolseley ‘like Dad had’.
With the Mini variants, the cars had the advantage of extra boot space over the base Austin and Morris – though Mini designer Alec Issigonis was less than impressed with the 8.5in extra length added to his packaging miracle.
The two cars sold in very similar numbers, with the slightly more expensive Riley marginally more popular than the Wolseley. Unlike the ADO16 series, in which the Riley Kestrel had twin carbs and significantly higher performance than the Wolseley version, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet shared the same single-carb power units.
The differences between them were instead purely cosmetic – trim, grilles and badging, with a bit more wood and leather in the Riley than its cheaper sister. Performance differences come between the 848cc Mk1 and the 998cc Mk2/3, with significantly increased torque making the later cars more flexible to drive.
However, you’re more than likely to find the car you’re viewing has a different power unit to factory specification by now anyway. The Wolseley here has a 1275cc engine, along with other modifications carried out when it belonged to Peter Mitchell OBE, founder and MD of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust.
Personalising is hugely popular when it comes to all models of Mini, and the booted cars are certainly no exception. There are more differences from the standard Mini than you might expect: the rear window is smaller, so its chrome surround trim is hard to find; the rear pillar external seams are eliminated; and the opening rear quarterlights with piano hinges are extremely rare.
The front slam panel, the rear valance panel, the chrome grilles, bumpers and overriders, the bonnet spears, the chrome side and front trim strips, and even the exhaust system, are all unique to these cars and are difficult or expensive to find.
Rot, and owners’ personal taste changes, are likely to be your biggest obstacles.
Images: Will Williams
Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
The alternator and carburettor are indications that this is a later engine, but otherwise the A-series changed little between 848cc and 1275cc. Cast-iron head means valve seats recede on unleaded fuel above 3000rpm, but most now have an exchange head with harder seats: an inexpensive and easy swap.
The in-the-sump transmission benefits from frequent oil changes: check for jumping out of second gear and rumbling in the lower ratios.
12in wheels give better clearance and higher gearing; disc brakes are preferable. Standard drums are fine for 10in wheels, if well maintained.
Although fitted with later, more supportive front seats, this interior is more original than many, with Cardinal Red trim and carpets.
Unique parts, such as chrome grilles and bumpers, are extremely hard to find now so beware of incomplete projects or cars with missing trim.
Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet: on the road
Eager and fun, the Elf/Hornet feels livelier than performance figures suggest. Check what engine is actually fitted – BMC engine codes can be found online.
Engines get rattly, oily and smoky when worn, and it’s worth budgeting for an unleaded conversion if it’s not been done. Cooling gets marginal as the side-mounted radiator silts up over time, and the water pump can leak. Check for oil in the water and emulsion under the oil filler cap: a new radiator and head gasket is not a big job.
Clonking and shuddering when taking up drive is probably just stabiliser bushes and engine mountings, which is an easy fix. Dirty oil is bad news for the gearbox as well as the engine – some chatter from the gearbox at tickover is acceptable, but loud rattling when driving means a worn bearing that could wreck the casing.
Automatics are an acquired taste but usually durable and certainly a boon in traffic. Check the manual override selects promptly and be wary of rough changes.
Rubber suspension gives a firm and bumpy ride; Hydrolastic is more compliant and can still be pumped up by many garages if required, due to its use on MGFs. Check for leaks and rusty pipework, though.
Extra soundproofing and improved trim made the cars more comfortable than the standard Mini. There’s heaps of potential for tuning/uprating and most cars have been modified to an extent, but make sure it’s been done well and comprehensively – including better brakes to cope.
Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet price guide
- Show/rebuilt: £12,500
- Average: £3000
- Restoration: £350
Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet history
1961 Oct Elf and Hornet introduced: 848cc, heater and screenwash standard, no body seams
1962 Body seams appear, bumper overriders become standard, leather replaces leathercloth for seat facings, stronger synchromesh on 2/3/4
1963 Mk2: 998cc, twin-leading-shoe f/brakes
1964 Jan Viking Sport/Sprint Hornet from WJ Last and Crayford convertible, with tuned engine options
1964 Oct Hydrolastic springing, diaphragm spring clutch, key start
1966 Heinz gives away 57 Crayford Hornet convertibles with food cabinet, picnic hamper, seatbelts, kettle, rug, radio and make-up tray
1966 Mk3: internal door hinges, wind-up windows, air vents in dash, remote gearlever extension, optional heated rear window
1967 Redesigned seats, AP automatic option
1968 Manual ’box becomes all-synchromesh
1969 Production ends
The owner’s view
“I’ve had lots of classics,” admits artist and actor Jason Christopher. “I only have this one now, it’s my everyday car and lives outside. It has character – you can take it to Mini shows and have something a bit different. “I met my wife because she had an Elf; she popped up on the Elf-Hornet forum and I thought, ‘OK, this is more like it!’ We had a Heinz 57 Hornet as our wedding car.
“I used to have a concours Elf the same colour as this, but I kept this one because the Mk2s are now so rare. Peter Mitchell made it very usable with the 1275cc engine, disc brakes and 12in wheels. It has Mk2 Mini seats, Cardinal Red to match the interior, because I need the support following a back injury. I’ll be getting the A-post panel replaced later in the year.”
Elf-beating performance, but the ohc rear engine scared buyers. Fun, though hard to find today.
Sold 1964-’70 • No. built 50,000+ • Price now £2500-8500
Rear drive, separate chassis, a bigger boot – and similar performance. Rot is easier to fix, and parts are available.
Sold 1961-’68 • No. built 201,142 • Price now £1500-5000
Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
Offering all of the Mini’s great attributes but with additional quirkiness and individuality, the Elf and Hornet have much to offer. They are easily boosted with more performance, too. Choose carefully, though, because there are lots of rusty and poorly repaired or restored examples out there, and plenty where personalisation has resulted in the loss of many rare original parts. This can be difficult and costly to put right.
Characterful, practical and extremely cheap to run, with all service parts (except exhausts) shared with standard Minis
Rust can be extensive and very expensive to eradicate properly. Some panels are unique and pricey, so too is most of the bright trim
Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet specifications
- Sold/number built 1961-’69/30,912 Elf, 28,455 Hornet
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 848/998cc ‘four’, with single/twin SU carburettors
- Max power 34bhp @ 5500rpm to 38bhp @ 5250rpm
- Max torque 44lb ft @ 2900rpm to 52lb ft @ 2700rpm
- Transmission four-speed (all-synchro from 1968) manual or AP auto, FWD
- Suspension: front wishbones rear trailing arms; rubber cone springs and telescopic dampers or Hydrolastic f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes Lockheed 7in (178mm) drums
- Length 10ft 10in (3302mm)
- Width 4ft 71/2in (1410mm)
- Height 4ft 41/2in (1334mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 81/4in (2038mm)
- Weight 1428lb (649kg)
- 0-60mph 28.4-22.6 secs
- Top speed 72-76mph
- Mpg 33-50
- Price new £629/647 (Hornet/Elf, ’67)